The Tour De France, which sees its 110th outing this summer (July 1-23), has become one of the globe’s most celebrated sporting spectacles. But in all that time, and until 2012, no British rider had been able to take the coveted crown and famous Yellow Jersey.
But the trajectory of British Cycling took a turn in 2003 when the organisation that governs professional cycling in Great Britain hired Dave Brailsford as its new performance director. He introduced a strategy called “the aggregation of marginal gains,” which five years later resulted in astonishing success. Firstly, at the 2008 Olympic Games, followed by the first-ever British win at the Tour de France in 2012 by Bradley Wiggins. That led to a flurry of success from the likes of Mark Cavendish, who jointly holds the Tour’s record for most stage wins and overall victories for Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas.
But what’s the secret behind Brailsford’s philosophy, and how can you apply it to your personal life?
Although the aggregation of marginal gains, which brought British Cycling immense success, sounds like a complicated philosophy, it is a simple concept that can be applied to all aspects of life and business.
According to an American entrepreneur, author and motivational speaker Jim Rohn, “Success is nothing more than a few simple disciplines, practised every day, while failure is simply a few errors in judgment, repeated every day. It is the accumulative weight of our disciplines and our judgments that leads us to either fortune or failure.”
The theory of marginal gains states that if you make a 1% improvement in many small areas of what you do, the cumulative benefits of that over time would be significant.
Brailsford applied this principle to cycling very adeptly in preparation for the big wins. He and his team focused on a variety of aspects that could improve the cycling performance of the British riders. They paid special attention to their clothing. By testing various fabrics in a wind tunnel, they came to the conclusion that indoor suits proved to be lighter and more aerodynamic. They also wore electrically heated overshorts on top of their mountain bike shorts to maintain ideal muscle temperature.
Alongside the standard cycling improvements, Brailsford and his team continued to find enhancements in unexpected areas. For example, during the race, the cyclists were placed in 21 different hotels to ensure minimum distraction and optimum sleep. Moreover, each cyclist had a custom-made mattress and pillows set up in their room, so their rest and recovery were controlled and not left to chance.
They also hired a surgeon to teach the riders how to best wash their hands to avoid the chance of catching a cold. They went as far as painting the inside of the team truck in white to be able to spot any dust particles that could impair the performance of the finely tuned bikes.
The results of these small improvements didn’t take long to come to fruition. In just five years, the team had become equipped with significant marginal gains to take home the wins during the 2008 Tokyo Olympic Games in Beijing, winning 60% of the gold medals available. Their success continued at the Tour de France in 2012 and the following years.
What Brailsford describes as the most powerful benefit of the marginal gains strategy is that “it creates a contagious enthusiasm”. “Everyone starts looking for ways to improve. There’s something inherently rewarding about identifying marginal gains — the bonhomie is similar to a scavenger hunt.”
The math is pretty simple. If you improve an area of your life by one per cent each day for one year, you’ll end up 37 times better at the end of it. And while the changes might be unnoticeable at first, over time, they’ll become notable, especially if you focus on many at a time.
The philosophy of marginal gains can be applied not only to cycling performance but many other areas of your personal life. You can focus on improvement by subtraction or improvement by addition. In the first case, you focus on doing less of what doesn’t work, while in the second one, you include good habits that add to your goal.
For example, if you want to improve your finances, you can commit to eating out one less time per week and add that to your savings – that’s an improvement by subtraction. Alternatively, you can save £1 or more a day into your savings and set that to automatic.
If your goal is to improve your relationships, why not spend 30 minutes less a day on social media and dedicate them to your family? Or vice versa, add 30 minutes of genuine talk with your family after dinner, for example.
In terms of personal development, you can make an effort to stop yourself from complaining once a day or dedicate 10 minutes to writing things you’re grateful for in your journal.
Microexcellence can be achieved both in our professional and personal lives, and British Cycling is the perfect example of that. Whether you’re training for a cycling competition, want to improve your performance on your mountain bike for recreational purposes, or are looking to give a certain area of your life a boost, the aggravation of marginal gains is an effective way to see results.